Stories

A Dream In Lights

My first visit to Austin was in the early seventies. My sister, Esstine, had won Miss Black Teenage Texas and Austin’s black community invited her to be their guest at a festival in Given’s Park. Black people from all walks of life were having a ball. It was a good day.

My two brothers and I would visit Austin again in the mid-seventies when Esstine was attending UT. We were teenagers hanging out with big sis. She’d take us everywhere, even back to that familiar place, Given’s Park. But the inevitable happened. Esstine left UT, which cut off my visits for some years.

It wasn’t until the early eighties, when my younger brother, Winston, attended UT, that I began revisiting Austin. But this time around I was older and the sights to see were the clubs, the bars, and the bands on Sixth Street. It was these visits that set me on a path to becoming a musician.

On one particular visit, I recall us stumbling into a bar. Understandably, I can’t remember the name, but there was this band jamming smooth soulful songs. The lead singer was a black guy who was lean and swage with a well-seasoned tone. I remember just standing, watching as he glowed in the stage lights, commanding the crowd. At that moment I was convinced that I wanted to be on stage singing in those lights.

Another significant visit to Austin came as a result of me calling Winston informing him I’d written three songs. He was majoring in music and persuaded me to come and let him put music to them. When my wife and I arrived, Winston took us to UT’s music department. The ole’ high school band room couldn’t even compare. The building had many floors and a lot of small rooms. Winston found an empty one with a piano and the art of crafting my songs began.

The following Thanksgiving Winston announced that I had written some songs. With a little persuasion from the family, before I knew it I was singing, which was something I’d never done in front of them. When I finished, everyone was stunned and clapped. At that moment, Esstine jumped to her feet and demanded we do something with the songs.

From those songs, I would travel to travel to LA, which lead to Esstine and I setting up a production/record company in Houston where she lived at the time. It seemed we were on our way. Artists were calling, wanting to be signed with our company. But that endeavor was short lived. Esstine was diagnosed with breast cancer and died within two years. The devastation was tremendous for the whole family.

My sister had died but the dream of being that “guy” on a stage singing in those lights was still alive. Winston had graduated from UT and was urging me to move to Austin. I was living in Bryan and working at a computer company, which is where I established great friendships. One friend in particular was Mark, a drummer. He and I hung out a lot, dreaming, making plans to be big stars. He finally got tired of dreaming, quit his job and moved to LA. During his stay he’d write me. First his letters were filled with excitement, but after several months the excitement turned to gloom. LA had disappointed him.

Time went by and Mark’s letters had stopped coming. Then, out of the blue, I got a letter from him telling me that he’d moved to Austin and he wanted me to come and start a band with him. There were all of these forces coming together pulling me towards those lights. My sister had passed, Winston and Mark were insisting I move, plus there were Austin musicians on MTV and Stevie Ray Vaughn was on a path to take over the world.

So the day finally came. The thinking, analyzing, and worrying was all be hind me now. Ahead of us was a journey down a stretch of highway, would lead me to those lights.

My sister, Viola, once dubbed me, “Man of a thousand songs”, a summation she derived from a road trip we once took from Marlin to Oakland, California, me singing radio songs the whole way. For years I had been learning and singing songs and had become good at it.

My wife and I and our two infant children started out, both cars packed with whatever we could carry. As we drove away from Bryan on Highway 21, me driving the worst of our two beat up cars, again I sung every song that came on the radio. It helped me not to worry about breaking down somewhere along the way. In my mind, I had mapped out a marker. A spot along the highway we needed to reach. With my wife and kids driving ahead of me, I spotted the marker. There they were, tall and green. We had made it to the stretch of pine trees just east of Bastrop on Highway 21. My singing grew louder, bolder, losing its nervous tone. My voice sang of conformation. It was strong, assured in the hope of making it the rest of the way. And we did.

There’s nothing like the feeling of being in a new place. Though I had visited Austin many times, I was no longer a visitor, someone just in and out leaving the damage behind. We were now residents taking up roots.

Mark and I began meeting right away. We had settled in South Austin and Mark was living near IH-35 and Highway 183. This was before Austin’s traffic problems, but the daily pilgrimage would soon destroy both our cars. But I was determined.

First musician to join us was Robert, a keyboard player and the first vegetarian I’d ever met. After that came Johnny, a guitar player with New Orleans roots. Finding a bass player was as hard then as it is now, but then came John, looking like he’d just rode in on a Harley. And so it began. We practiced for months getting our chops down. Then, off to the bars and clubs we went looking for a place to play. We had no idea how difficult it would be. We tried them all but none would bite. Finally, a new club opened on Sixth Street and in charge of hiring bands was this wiry ambitious guy named Billy. Billy gave us a shot, a Friday night gig, which was rare for new comers.

Finally, the night had come. The night I’d be in those lights. I was so nervous I was sick to my stomach. Never before had I used a club restroom like I did that night, but I did. And there we were, on stage. Mark counted off and my dream came to life. I was now that guy, on stage, in those lights singing songs. Overall we sounded a little rough but the night was a success. After that we were able to get more gigs and played often.

Time has moved on and so have I. My dream of being in a band lived for nearly two years, finally succumbing to the financial inflation of Austin‘s cost of living. Eventually I stopped going to the bars and clubs, worked more, and stayed home to help with the kids and homework. But life can be a unique experience. Over the past five years I’ve been revisiting those places where I once sang. These days I’m back in the audience looking to the stages, seeing musicians playing in those lights I once dreamed of. This time one of those musicians is our son, a drummer.